Packard Automobile Plant

It started with a car. A terrible car, by all accounts.

At the turn of the century, the horseless carriage was widely considered to be nothing more than a passing fad by most. Cars were expensive and difficult to maintain, limiting their appeal to wealthy customers. J.W. Packard, co-owner of an electrical supply company in Warren, Ohio found this out the hard way when he traveled to Cleveland in June of 1898 to take delivery of a new automobile from the Winton Motor Carriage Company. On the return trip the engine overheated, the radiator sprung a leak, and the chain which drove the rear wheels broke. It took 11 hours to travel the 60 miles from Cleveland to Warren. When the car finally made it home, it was behind a team of horses, who had towed it the last three miles.

For some this would have been the beginning and the end of their interest in owning a car. But J.W. had long been fascinated with mechanical objects, dismantling and rebuilding them again to see how they worked. He spent much of his free time tinkering with the car in the corner of his warehouse, and within a few weeks he had the car up and running again. More breakdowns followed, with factory repairmen making frequent trips to Warren to address problems.

Along the way J.W. discovered several ways of improving the car’s reliability, and on a visit to Cleveland he shared these ideas with the president of the company, Alexander Winton. Winton, head of one of the most successful car companies in the country at the time was not impressed. “If you think you are so smart, why don't you build a better machine yourself,” he asked pointedly. After a moment of silence, J. W. Packard replied, “Why Mr. Winton, I guess I 'll do just that." And he did. Just six months later the first Packard lurched out of a shed and onto the streets of Warren.

That was the start of the Packard Motor Car company, which would shape the course of the auto industry and forever change the city of Detroit.

Packard would be a luxury car, built to the highest specifications and sparing no expense. The first models were built in a shed in a corner of their electrical plant. Wishing to avoid repeating their experience with the Winton, the brothers exhaustively road-tested their car to iron out potential problems. The company found that early issues were usually caused by inferior materials and became fanatical about only using the highest quality materials, to the point of alienating suppliers by rejecting too many of their parts.

The company learned the hard way, from mistakes. One early model was an engineering failure, with a driveshaft that tended to drop out, lubrication issues, and an exhaust noise described as "heart-rending." The company ended up buying back all 25 cars that had been sold and scrapped them. It was an expensive lesson on the importance of quality control, one the company would take to heart going forward.

Packard quickly outgrew its plant in Warren as orders for new models rolled in. One of the company’s early investors, Henry B. Joy was a businessman from Detroit suggested moving the plant to Detroit, where many of the products needed to build cars – wheels, carriages, engines, tires, paint, and wiring were already being produced. In March of 1903, the company bought land along a railway on the east side of the city and hired noted architect Albert Kahn to design a modern factory. The plant was laid out in a hollow square measuring 400 feet on each side, with manufacturing taking place in the outer building and finishing in the middle. Construction was completed in 90 days, at which point the Warren factory was packed up and shipped to Detroit by train.

The Detroit Free Press called it “one of the most modern and best arranged factory plants in Detroit” in a 1905 article. “The 200 model L’s which were turned out made a tremendous reputation for the Packard and when this year’s model N was shown at New York, there was no car in Madison Square Garden which attracted more attention or admiration or which sold more rapidly. The year’s entire output of 400 cars was sold when the show came to a close.”

The Packard plant was the first large auto plant built in the City of Detroit, marking the start of the city’s automobile boom years. Parts suppliers and other auto manufacturers followed quickly and by 1904 there were 17 manufactures of cars in the city, employing 6,000, putting out 12,000 cars a year. The state of Michigan produced half the cars made in the country.

As demand increased the plant grew, straining existing construction methods. The space inside the mill-style buildings was cramped due to the need for roof supports. Albert Kahn adopted a method for reinforcing concrete with steel that had been pioneered by his brother Julius, which spaced the supports spaced further apart and allowed larger machinery. Building 10, which was the first reinforced concrete factory building in Detroit when it was built in 1905 became the template by which all other factories in the city were built and made.

Packard’s production philosophy was to focus on a single model, refining and testing it extensively before bringing it to market. Early auto production was very different than today’s methods. Each car was built by hand by highly trained craftsmen who specialized in specific tasks. The partially completed car would move from station to station inside the plant, where work was checked and rechecked for quality. The 1912 Model “Six” took two months to produce. Wood used in the construction of bodies and wheels was cured in the open air for up to a year before being used. Painting was complex and time-consuming, with dozens of coats of varnish, primer, and color that had to be sanded between coats. The quality was reflected in the price: At a time when the cost of an average car produced in Michigan was $1,137, a Packard clocked in at over $3,500. Packards became the favored cars of Hollywood stars, politicians, and the wealthy.

Packard employees took a lot of pride in their work. After the final 1907 model was finished ahead of schedule, it was decorated with flags and driven around the streets of Detroit by workers. When an experimental 1908 model came back from a road test, workers from across the factory came to see how it had fared, ask questions, and offer advice on how to improve it. The plant had its own brass band, baseball team, hospital, and fire department.

A 1909 article in the Detroit Free Press noted that since the construction began in 1903, "there hasn't been a week when building operations have not been underway." Construction of truck shops, storage facilities, stamping mills, a foundry, administrative offices and a power plant covering both sides of Grand Boulevard meant that by 1910 the last original plant building had been torn down. During the First World War the company built and shipped thousands of cars and trucks overseas. But Packard’s biggest contribution was the Liberty aircraft engine, a standardized design that could be used across multiple platforms. Over 6,800 engines were built at the Detroit plant during the war, more than any other manufacturer.

The experience gained in mass production of aircraft engines trickled down to the automotive side after the war ended, and hand production techniques were gradually discontinued. The plant was modernized starting in 1920, introducing assembly lines and automated production equipment for the first time. By 1922 the plant was producing 65 cars a day and employed over 4,000 workers. Packard was the dominant luxury brand, outselling Lincoln, Cadillac, and Pierce-Arrow. But the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and changes in consumer taste meant decreasing demand for luxury touring cars. To survive, Packard would have to enter the low-cost market.

Development of the Packard 120 would require significant changes to the plant. The entire plant was remodeled starting in the early 1930’s, with production flow rerouted through different floors of the buildings. The northern half of the plant would continue building the high-end luxury cars, while the south end would be converted into an assembly line for the new 120. When it debuted in January of 1935 with a price tag of less than $1,000, the 120 was a sensation. Before the first car could roll off the assembly line over 10,000 orders had been placed, and by May the line was running at full capacity, at a rate of 6,100 cars a month.

The 120 came just as the depression started to lift, and Americans bought cars in much greater numbers. Packard went from producing 6,071 cars in 1934 to 109,518 in 1937. The move to the lower cost market saved the company, bringing in a fresh infusion of cash and customers. But unlike other companies that changed model styles every year, Packard had long kept their style for as long as sales were good. While this worked well in the luxury market, the consumers Packard was targeting expected more frequent updates like those at Ford and Dodge. Retooling and redesigning every year was extremely costly for smaller automakers like Packard.

By 1939 the company’s model lines had started to grow stale in terms of design. Though the US auto market and economy continued improve, Packard sales remained flat. To remain competitive, the company decided to do a major facelift of all its cars to bring them up to modern standards. Once again, the plant was completely gutted and retooled, creating one large assembly line that snaked through the entire length of the plant. Four miles of conveyer systems are installed on the north side, with different floors performing sub-assembly of components which dropped down through holes in the floor to be mated with the main assembly line, depositing the component where needed. Work continued through the night, with large pieces of machinery being shuttled across Grand Boulevard on carts, trucks, and trains so as not to disturb traffic.

In April of 1941, the Packard Clipper was introduced, a radically redesigned car that brought Packard back to the forefront of modern styling. Though well received by the public, production had barely started before American entered the Second World War. Packard, along with the other major automobile companies ceased production of automobiles and retooled for the war effort. The modern assembly line that Packard had invested millions of dollars into was hastily removed and put into storage. For the duration of the war, Packard would focus on building aircraft and marine engines.

Over the next four years the plant would grow to almost 4.5 million square feet in size and employ 41,000 workers, making over 55,000 Merlin aircraft engines for Rolls Royce. But what Packard did not make during that time was money: Despite receiving over $1 billion in government contracts, Packard made a mere $17.5M in profits over 5 years because of price controls set in place by the government to prevent war profiteering. With all its efforts focused on war production, the company had not done any significant development into new cars, and when production resumed in 1945 the Clipper design was already outdated. Despite a huge demand for cars due to wartime rationing, Packard was unable to capitalize due to parts shortages caused by supplier strikes and shortages in materials like steel.

The rapid shift from defense production back to cars was costly: Between the end of the war and 1949, Packard invests $25M in a new double assembly line that used a conveyer and roller system controlled by teletype. Lack of space meant that some production had to be moved into the courts between buildings, which were then covered with metal roofs. Once production finally resumed, the Korean War brought more restrictions on materials and the number of cars that could be sold, and a national rail strike slowed production further.

By 1952 the independent carmakers were all struggling to hang on to market share. A price war between the big three and the expansion of their sub-brands was squeezing out the smaller companies, forcing them to merge and consolidate to survive. New technologies, including fully automatic transmissions, power steering, power brakes, air conditioning were considered essential in attracting customers, but cost lots of money to develop and bring to production.

To keep up with the bigger companies, Packard began building a new V8 engine plant in Utica, MI, and began developing an automatic transmission called Ultramatic. To fund these projects, Packard was relying heavily on defense contracts for jet engines and other products. But when the Korean War ended the contracts were canceled, leaving Packard on the hook for the cost of the new plants.

Further complicating things was that the Packard name no longer carried the prestige that it used to. While Packard had once been synonymous with luxury, the company’s move into the lower market diluted the value of the brand. A 1951 survey of new car buyers found that over half bought the car based on its styling, and only 17% based on reputation. Only 30% are first-time Packard buyers. Packard had almost completely ceded the luxury market to Cadillac, while failing to break out in any meaningful way into the mid-priced market.

The plant on Grand Boulevard also represented a major obstacle to moving forward. Most of its buildings dated back to the 1910’s and 20’s, before assembly line production was common. As Ford had discovered early on, assembly lines work best in large, single-story plants. Various renovations had managed to shoehorn an assembly line into the tall, thin buildings of the Packard plant, but this was merely a stopgap measure. The company had neither the room to expand its existing plant or the money to build an entirely new facility out in the suburbs.

Packard would eventually move engine, automatic transmission, and axle production from Grand Boulevard to the new plant in Utica in 1954, taking 3,500 jobs with it. Auto body production and final assembly was moved to a leased factory on Conner Avenue in Detroit, with the last car body rolling off the line at Grand Boulevard on September 16th. Three miles of conveyer lines and 5,000 tools weighing up to five tons were moved down the street to the new plant, with production begining two months later. But production at Conner ramped up slower than expected, with quality issues dogging new models and lead to delays. Combined with dwindling sales, outdated products, and labor problems, Packard could no longer survive on its own.

By 1954 though, Packard was running out of options for merging. Most of the independent automakers had already merged to form American Motors, including Nash, Kelvinator, Willy, and Hudson. The only remaining uncoupled companies were Studebaker and Packard, which formally announced their merger in June. Despite hopes that the combined company would make an attractive partner for American Motors to form a fourth big automaker, plans never came to fruition, and the marriage was brief and unsuccessful. Studebaker was saddled with high labor costs and an outdated factory in South Bend, IN. Packard’s military contracts had all but evaporated. Retooling for the 1957 model year would have required millions of dollars that banks were unwilling to lend, while unsold cars from the previous model year clogged showrooms across the country. To cut costs, production in Detroit was halted in 1956 and moved to South Bend. By August the Grand Boulevard plant was virtually deserted.

The closing of the Packard plant had a catastrophic impact on the east side of Detroit. For many employees, Packard was all they knew. The company had retained employees longer and at higher seniority rates than anywhere else in the auto industry. Many were too old to find work elsewhere. Some hung around the plant, hoping for good news. Studebaker continued the Packard name for a few years before dropping it in 1958 and left the auto industry completely in 1966.

By 1957 most of the buildings had been stripped of wiring, machinery, and plumbing. Furniture was auctioned off. The plant was sold in 1958 to Edward Land, who began leasing out individual buildings to companies. The administration building was rented by the Detroit Ordinance District of the US Army. The Rolls Royce plant on the north side was sold to the Western Paper Box Company. By 1960 over half the plant had been leased to 39 companies, employing 4,000, including electrical companies, a department store, a toy company, and an industrial heating firm.

By the late 90’s there were 87 companies leasing space, mostly small businesses, some of which were dumping chemicals and tires. The City of Detroit foreclosed on the property for nonpayment of taxes in 1993 and 1997. In doing so, however, they failed to notify the mortgage holder of the legal proceedings. After the owner of the plant suddenly died from a heart attack in September of 1998, a man named Dominic Cristini bought the plant from the estate of the previous owner and began a lengthy legal battle with the City of Detroit.

At the center of the dispute: The city wanted to keep a marketing company, Budco, from relocating to Highland Park. While there was a lot of vacant land in the city, most of it was locked up in small parcels spread out over a large area. The Packard plant was more than half empty and in bad shape. Police had recently broken up an auto theft ring that was scrapping cars inside the plant. Large “rave” parties were being held in vacant parts of the complex, where teenagers danced to electronic music and did drugs. By tearing down the plant, the city could free up enough space to keep Budco and attract other light industrial companies.

In November of 1998, the city council voted to remove Cristini as manager of the plant. Soon after, members of the Detroit Police Department gang squad were sent to the plant to evict Cristini and prevent destruction of documents. He refused to leave, barricading himself inside an office surrounded by weapons, hiding under a desk. "The cops want to take me out," he told a Detroit News reporter he’d invited to cover the story. "If they come busting in here, I'm taking some of them out with me." What followed was a standoff that lasted eight months, with Cristini refusing to leave the building while police officers kept 24-hour watch just outside the building.

Many of the plant’s tenants were evicted, and in January of 1999, the city began demolishing part of the north side of the plant. A court order in June halted the demolition, but by that point over 500,000 square feet had already been demolished. After the taxes were paid off In 2000 by a group of businessmen including Cristini, the property went into limbo as the courts took over. Eventually, the Michigan State Supreme Court would rule that the city had improperly seized the property, returning legal ownership of it to Dominic Cristini.

Cristini, however, was not around to enjoy the victory. As the legal battle for the plant had gone on, he had moved into a vacant school next to the Packard plant and began taking, then selling drugs. Federal prosecutors charged him with dealing ecstasy in 2004, to which he pled guilty in 2006, spending over 5 years in prison. By the time he got out in 2010, the city had pulled its guards from the plant because of the court ruling, leaving it wide open to scrappers and vandals.

The Packard plant’s recent history has been well-documented elsewhere, as the site became a destination for urban explorers, filmmakers, and curiosity-seekers. Reclusive graffiti artists Banksy painted a mural in the plant in 2010, which was promptly cut out and carted off by a local art gallery. Michael Bay shot scenes for several movies at the plant, including Transformers. Scrappers tore down the metal sheds in between buildings, one of the water towers, and gutted the remaining buildings. At night the plant burned so frequently that the fire department had orders not go in due to the structural hazards inside.

Cristini lost possession of the plant again in 2013 when most of the property was seized for non-payment of taxes and auctioned off. The high bidder, a doctor from Texas who offered $6 million dropped out after issuing a rambling press release about hydroelectric dams and wanting to buy every vacant property in the city. The next highest bidder, developer Bill Hults could not raise the $2 million dollars he bid. The plant finally sold weeks later to Fernando Palazuelo, a Peruvian developer for $405,000.

Palazuelo had ambitious plans for the site, announcing a development that would rehab the buildings for mixed commercial and residential use. The project, to be completed in four phases over 15 years, had an estimated price tag of $500 million. Skeptics pointed to his 2008 bankruptcy and a trail of unpaid creditors as evidence that he might not be up for the job, but for a time it appeared he’d prove them wrong. After securing part of the site, work commenced on abating and cleaning up the administration building and some of the surrounding property. The bridge over Grand Boulevard, which had fallen into severe disrepair, was covered with a tarp that had a graphic of what the bridge used to look like. There was cautious optimism that things were looking up. “I'm committed to the success of this project. I assure you, we will not fail,” he told the Detroit News at the project’s groundbreaking in 2017.

But aside from the work on the administration building and a few optimistic signs promising a new Packard brewery, work moved slowly. In January of 2019, the bridge over Grand Boulevard collapsed onto the roadway after a heavy snowfall. The security guards patrolling the plant were laid off. And by October of 2020 Palazuelo had given up on the project, putting the land up for sale.

The City of Detroit seized most of the remaining property in 2022 and began demolishing large sections of the plant.